In The News

Singapore Elections Galvanize New Electorate

May 18, 2011

In Singapore’s recent General Election, the incumbent People’s Action Party (PAP) won 81 seats and the opposition Workers’ Party picked up the remaining six. Yet, many – victors and vanquished alike – are calling it a “watershed” election.

Indeed, the numbers belie the significance of this election.

Singapore election rallly

Crowds gather at a Workers’ Party rally ahead of Singapore's election. Photo by Abdul Rahman.

Among the six candidates that PAP lost was George Yeo, a veteran politician of 23 years who has served as foreign minister for the last seven years, and was also the trade minister who helped Singapore negotiate its Free Trade Agreement with the United States in 2004 (the latter’s first with an Asian nation). Among the seats the Workers’ Party had picked up were five seats in the Aljunied Group Representation Constituency or GRC (a multi-seat division). This is the first time that any opposition party has won a GRC (GRCs were introduced by PAP in 1988 ostensibly to ensure minority race representation in Parliament.)

A week after the election, reverberations continued – the two former Prime Ministers, Lee Kuan Yew and Goh Chok Tong, announced their wish to step down from the Cabinet, citing the “new political situation” and the “younger generation” as reasons.

Right from the start, nearly everyone here recognized that this was going to be a significant election. For the first time since 1972, opposition parties were contesting all the election divisions, except for the Tanjong Pagar GRC led by Lee (the contesting candidates in this case did not submit their documents on time). In the end, the opposition fielded a total of 82 candidates against PAP.

But it wasn’t just about quantity. The quality of the opposition candidates was also significantly higher than past elections in almost all respects, including education background, professional achievements, and oratory skills.

With almost all the seats being contested, most Singaporeans had an opportunity to vote this time. As many seats had not been contested in previous elections, it meant there were many first-time voters of different ages, not just the young, and all were galvanized to study the issues and scrutinize the candidates. Over the years, the education level of Singaporeans has been rising, and political awareness this time round was at an all-time high.

The new media provided the opposition parties with alternative ways to reach out to the electorate through their own websites and social networks. The rising popularity of social media also helped to connect and energize the electorate. Those who could not make it to the rallies received text messages from friends who were there or stayed glued to blogs for the latest news. (At one opposition rally, the telecommunications volume was so high it put out the networks for a few hours.)  Others watched the speeches on YouTube and logged onto Facebook for updates.

The new media also made an impact on the old media. The traditional broadsheets and national TV channels (generally perceived as pro-government) were forced to cover stories that were trending online or risked losing their credibility. As a result, most analysts agreed that the coverage of the opposition parties was relatively more balanced than during previous elections.

Of course, it would not be possible to talk about this election without mentioning the issues and the “apologies.”

Over the years, the PAP has built an enviable reputation for its ability to lead the small “improbable nation” of 4.5 million people into an economic powerhouse. The island is litter and smog-free, and its government and civil service almost completely corruption-free.

But this time around, there was a palpable anger from the people against a government they felt was riding roughshod over their concerns over crowded trains and buses, loss of jobs to foreigners, and rising costs of living. Unleashed by the opposition, this tide of resentment led the usually persuadable (some might even say docile) citizens to display much more overt and vociferous support at opposition rallies that challenged the notion of a “climate of fear” in Singapore (that discourages dissent against the government).

Four days before election day, at the height of campaigning, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong offered an apology for PAP’s shortcomings. This was unprecedented from a government that had hitherto always claimed to have all the right answers for the nation and its people.

But many voters felt the apology was too little, too late; they wanted “not an apology, but accountability.” And so, with the encouragement of the opposition parties, they voted in alternative voices to check on the government.

By most accounts, the election was regarded as free and fair. There were some close results. But overall, the incumbent PAP still won 60 percent of the total votes, a convincing margin by most standards. But for the PAP, the fall of 6.5 percent and the loss of George Yeo signaled to them a clear message that the environment has changed. The Singapore electorate has changed. And now the government must also change. For the first time in 52 years, Singapore’s new government Cabinet of ministers will not include Lee Kuan Yew. For both PAP and Singapore, this might be the election that will usher in a new era.

Peggy Kek is The Asia Foundation’s country director in Singapore. She can be reached at pkek@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

View all posts by Peggy Kek

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